Through all the discussion of the Topic That I Have Been Advised Has Been Done to Death, there's this constant theme: We have to do something to attract and retain the best and brightest. Business owners tell of bringing potential employees to town, but having nowhere exciting to take them, nothing that would persuade them to move here.
At a high school reunion, one of my classmates urged my support for the $600 million Project That Must Not Be Named, recalling that he chose to go to Dallas after college graduation because Dallas was fun and Tulsa was not. (He did eventually come back, as many of my classmates did.) Never mind that in 1985 Tulsa was in the depths of the Great Oil Collapse. In his mind, Tulsa wasn't fun for young people then, therefore it still isn't fun.
Knowing some people in their early 20s, such as my colleague on the page opposite, and having seen first hand some of the newer gathering places around town, I tend to think that the middle-aged people doing the hiring are so settled into quiet domesticity that they have no idea where the cool places are. Perhaps Tulsa needs to do a better job of marketing itself to Tulsa.
Many cities are trying to position themselves to attract a group that Richard Florida has labeled the Creative Class -- entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, authors, artists, musicians. His ideas have turned economic development on its head. Instead of trying to attract existing companies to bring their jobs to a city, cities are told to focus on being an attractive place for creative people to live. These people, the theory goes, will start and grow businesses of their own.
Without discounting the value that right-brained Creative Class types can add to a city, it's the left-brained, linear-thinking engineers that take high-tech visions from concept to reality.
Urban analyst Joel Kotkin points to suburban areas that are booming despite the lack of the amenities that the Creative Class is said to seek. These are lands of non-descript office parks, apartment complexes, and strip malls -- Kotkin calls them Nerdistans.
These areas don't have trendy and exciting gathering places, but because they offer jobs with good pay, technical challenge, and a comfortable work environment, they still manage to attract people with skills in information technology, software engineering, electrical engineering -- the kind of human capital high-tech businesses must have.
Five years ago, Tulsa had more Nerdistanis than we do today. With the bursting of the telecom bubble, we lost thousands of skilled engineers to cities that had islands in the middle of their rivers.
(I'm sorry, I'll type that again.)
We lost thousands of skilled engineers to cities that had jobs in their field of expertise, jobs that would pay them close to what they had been making. In many cases, these engineers reluctantly left homes, friends, and family behind in Tulsa after months and years of underemployment.
While I certainly want to rebuild Tulsa's urban core as an exciting 24/7 kind of place, that may not be enough to attract and retain the kind of talent our businesses need.
As a very settled, married, middle-aged dad, I am not in the target demographic for these recruitment efforts. But I am a 21-year veteran of one of Tulsa's enduring but little-known high-tech industries -- flight simulation. I've worked alongside colleagues who came to Tulsa from the UK, the Middle East, China, India, and around the US.
They came for a good job, but then decided to put down roots.
Based on these years of experience, I offer these very practical factors that we should not overlook in our pursuit of highly-skilled knowledge workers.
If you're an employer seeking workers, here are some ideas to consider (in addition to reading Urban Tulsa Weekly to update your knowledge of Tulsa's entertainment offerings).
Pay a nationally competitive salary: Yes, housing, food, and fuel are less expensive here than the rest of the country, but iPods, laptops, and DVDs cost the same wherever you go, and travel from Tulsa is more expensive and less convenient than in bigger coastal cities. Also, an engineer considering a job in Tulsa may worry that accepting a lower salary, even if the cost of living justifies it, may look raise questions when he looks for his next job.
Beyond salary, offer performance incentives that show you value your engineers as well as your executives. Consider flexible benefit programs -- a high-deductible medical plan combined with a Health Savings Account can provide more choice than a traditional HMO or PPO.
Provide a casual, comfortable, flexible work environment: I was courted for a job in St. Louis about 10 years ago. I was open to the possibility until I toured the plant. I would have been assigned to a tiny cubicle, sitting back to back with three other engineers, far from any window or natural light. Even if your pay is competitive, an experienced engineer may regard your work environment as a step down.
In places like Silicon Valley, companies allow flexible hours and casual dress, provide a variety of workspaces allowing room to collaborate and places to get away and concentrate, and offer in-house recreation, like pool and foosball tables. The idea is to make the workplace comfortable enough that engineers don't mind putting in long hours.
Some employees might appreciate the flexibility of working part of the time from home or anywhere they can get a WiFi signal, if the type of work permits it. Part-time and job sharing positions allow parents of young children to continue to contribute their talents.
Let the prospect know there are other local job opportunities: It sounds counterintuitive--you want the prospect to come to work for your company and stay there--but you may need to allay her fear of getting stuck in the job or in the city if she comes to Tulsa. An engineer will assume that if she moves to a larger job market like the DFW Metroplex, she'll be able to change jobs without having to relocate again, should the job not work out. She won't make that assumption about Tulsa, unless you call attention to the broader Tulsa job market.
Offer co-op and internship opportunities, and let out-of-state engineering colleges know you have them. Many engineering schools offer programs that allow a student to get a bachelor's and master's degree in five years, mixing school and work in the industry. At MIT, a student in the co-op program spends three summers and a semester working for a company. The student gets a high-paying summer job, valuable work experience, and material for his master's thesis. These programs can lay the foundation for a long-term relationship between the company and the student, to the benefit of both.
Let Tulsa know you exist: You may not see the point of this, if your firm doesn't have local customers, but you need Tulsa's schoolchildren and their parents to know about the career possibilities you offer. Offer plant tours, give technology demonstrations at schools, send employees to career days. Notify local media about expansions, new products, and contract awards -- any good news that means more high-tech jobs for Tulsa.
I grew up in Tulsa, but until I decided to come back and began looking for work, I had no idea that the flight simulation industry existed, much less that Tulsa is one of the principal hubs of that industry worldwide. Give Tulsa's kids the chance to dream about working for your company some day.
Finally, here's one for our city's economic development department: Stay connected with Tulsa's young expatriates.
Plenty of young Tulsans want to experience living in other places before they settle down. Some may choose to come back right after college, others may work for a few years before coming back.
Either way, when they return, they will bring back valuable education, experience, and connections that will benefit our local businesses.
These young people already know Tulsa and have family, friends, and memories here, which will make them easier to recruit than someone with no knowledge of the city.
Here's my idea: Set up an e-mail list of Tulsa high school graduates who leave town to go to college. Send them occasional e-mail newsletters that tell them what they're missing in the way of music, nightlife, and entertainment. Keep them informed about new businesses and new high-tech job opportunities. When they come home for Christmas break, hold receptions for them; they can meet other Tulsans who left town for college as well as recent graduates who came back.
Allow these students to opt-in to a career-interest matching service, where local employers in their field will be able to contact them about opportunities for summer internships and full-time employment.
It may not be practical for a company to send recruiters to seek out the handful of expatriate Tulsans at Cal Tech or Carnegie Mellon, but they could direct-market their opportunities to students with roots in Tulsa, people who would gladly come back to be near family and familiar surroundings if only there were a good job waiting for them.
Big projects and big plans might help put Tulsa on the map, but we must not forget to address the basic obstacles to attracting and retaining talented knowledge workers in Tulsa. As we better our city, let's do better at letting prospective Tulsans and once-and-future Tulsans know the good things Tulsa already has to offer.
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